Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Gay-friendly North Beach takes a hit


A gay man claiming that an altercation occurred at Caffe Macaroni between himself and four men later wrote about it on his blog, prompting a slew of negative reviews on Yelp. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Less than a month after gay elected officials and leaders gathered with Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn at Tosca, his favorite North Beach hangout, to promote state recognition of slain Supervisor Harvey Milk, an apparent anti-gay incident involving another popular business has left uneasy feelings among some in the birthplace of San Francisco's gay community.

The alleged incident earlier this month resulted in the restaurant owner being targeted as a homophobe on the business reviewing Web site Yelp.

But Mario Ascione, who owns both Caffe Macaroni and Macaroni Sciue Sciue on Columbus Avenue, and others, say he's not homophobic. The derogatory reviews were posted after award-winning author Mark Doty wrote about the incident – in which he claims he was called "faggot" – on his blog, and was also covered on other Web sites.

The Yelp reviews, most of which have since been removed, appear to have been based solely on Doty's account of what happened, and point to how stories can evolve on the Internet without many people questioning whether they're true.

One yelp reviewer, Christopher V., wrote, "... I am a straight guy but no way in hell am I ever going to patronize a restaurant that is run by homophobic, douchey thugs. No way."

In his blog, Doty wrote that the incident started on the night of Friday, March 13, when an elderly couple was being helped into a car. Another vehicle that had been "screeching down the street ... slammed on its brakes" behind the car, and the driver sounded her horn.

Doty wrote that he "yelled something like, 'Behave yourself!'" and that the woman glared at him, flipped him off, and called him a "fucking faggot." Later, after parking her car, the woman spoke with Doty, then ran inside the restaurant and came back out accompanied by four men, yelling, "There they are!"

Doty, 55, who lives in New York but was visiting San Francisco at the time, wrote that he and his husband, Paul Lisicky, 49, hurried into a nearby cafe that was empty of customers. They didn't realize at the time that the restaurant, Caffe Macaroni, was owned by the same person that owned the Macaroni Sciue Sciue, from which the other men had come.

According to Doty's account, two men entered the restaurant and two others stood just outside the door. Doty wrote that a middle-aged man told him to get out, but Doty was reluctant. Then the man took his arms and said, "Even though you are who you are, you gotta think twice before you talk to somebody," according to Doty.

Doty wrote that the man told him to get out of the restaurant, which he did, "'with a barrage of insults behind us – 'The Castro's on the east side of town, get out of the neighborhood, twinkletoes, get lost faggot' and so on."

Ascione, 56, who's originally from Naples, Italy, seemed eager to explain what had happened that night when contacted by the Bay Area Reporter. He referred to the situation as a "bad misunderstanding."

He said people outside the restaurant had heard one of the men tell the woman "You're a cunt, get out of here."

Anonymous reviews on Yelp and comments on Doty's blog also disputed Doty's account. One said Doty had called the woman a "cunt" before she'd called him a "faggot."

Ascione said that inside the second restaurant, he'd told Doty he didn't know who he was, but he shouldn't be able to call a young woman a "cunt."

Ascione told the B.A.R. that a lot of drunk people were in the street celebrating St. Patrick's Day and that those people told Doty and Lisicky, "Go back to the Castro," and "go back to your neighborhood."

"I don't think anybody called [them] 'faggot,'" said Ascione. He also said he didn't think anybody grabbed Doty by the arms.

Doty denied saying the word "cunt," but he also said, "I gave her some verbal abuse back ... I don't even know what I said to her."

Doty also disputed Ascione's account that the people yelling had been out in the street.

"That's not the case," Doty said.

Ascione told the B.A.R. at one point that the woman was his daughter, and that her name was Gabriella Ascione. Later, after he'd asked the paper not to use her name, he said that the woman wasn't really his daughter. He said the name he'd given was actually the name of his 9-year-old daughter.

A Gabriella Ascione contacted for this story declined to comment.

Ascione said his business is down 30 percent because of the economy, but he doesn't yet know whether his restaurants have been hurt by Doty's blog post and Yelp reviews. Either way, it "makes me want to throw up ... it's not who we are," he said.

"They can shut us down, because the gay community is very strong in this city," said Ascione.

"We love gay people," he added.

On a recent Saturday night, staff at both restaurants – who occasionally burst into song – chatted happily with gay customers and showed no obvious concern over anyone's orientation.

Asked about the Yelp reviews, Doty said, "I didn't invite anyone to protest the restaurant or take action on my behalf." He said dialogue that has been posted to his blog since he originally wrote his account has "helped to diffuse the hard feelings a little bit."

Yelp concerns

The dustup is another example of the power of Yelp, which lets users post anonymously and does not allow businesses to respond to critical reviews. The site has come under fire in two recent articles in the East Bay Express and was written up in the New York Times.

Kathleen Dooley, president of the North Beach Merchants Association and a member of the city's Small Business Commission, said, "We're all very concerned about the situation with Yelp. We all feel that it can be a very positive thing," but business people are also "starting to recognize ... it can do a lot of damage, too. Sometimes it's not warranted. For business people, there's very little recourse."

Dooley, who's straight, said Yelp officials have been invited to speak to the Small Business Commission. Dooley also said she sees North Beach "as kind of neutral ground" for the LGBT community. Homophobia is "not an issue here," she said.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents the district that includes North Beach, said that he's heard that Yelp can be a good site for small, family-run businesses to promote their establishments.

But, "like any elected official, I know how harmful inaccurate statements can be in the blogosphere when there's no independent research done to verify the truth, and I think it's important for folks to read blogs with a grain of salt" and look for separate, objective, independent, and verifiable facts, said Chiu.

Chiu, who is straight but garnered a lot of LGBT support during his election campaign last year, said he doesn't think the recent alleged incident "reflects the sentiment of the North Beach community or North Beach businesses."

Yelp spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose said it sounds like the reviews were flagged for removal; anyone can flag reviews, she noted. Ichinose said reviews are supposed to be based on firsthand experiences that reflect the "normal customer experience in that particular business."

"Things like hearsay or commenting or reviewing a business based on political ideologies are not considered a reflection of that customer experience," she said.

Restaurant owner's supporters

Ascione, who is straight, appears to have many ties to the LGBT community.

Ted Fang, the openly gay editor and publisher of AsianWeek (now an online publication) and former owner of the San Francisco Examiner, said he's known Ascione for eight years.

"Could Mario lose his temper for the honor of his daughter?" Fang asked. "I would think possibly, yes." But would Ascione "throw around anti-gay remarks?"

"I can't imagine that," he said.

Jim Manges, a bartender at the gay bar the Cinch, said he's had his last four birthday parties – some have included strippers – at the Purple Onion, the Ascione-owned piano bar.

The openly gay Manges will be holding his next party in June and said he's never seen any evidence of homophobia there.

"I've never seen anything but open arms," he said.

Susan Alexander, who is straight, hosts comedy nights at the Purple Onion that include gay and lesbian performers.

"Mario's always been respectful to all the performers," said Alexander, who said that she was "shocked" when she read about the incident. "... [Ascione's] never been derogatory toward anybody."

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